the Jenna Maroney of 30 Rock, played by Jane Krakowski, is the epitome of narcissistic actress wrapped up in the defense mechanisms that protect and produce her core of insecurity, driving her towards some of the show’s most ridiculous actions and best comedic moments. It is no secret that Jenna is the reason I’ve watch all of 30 Rock – I think it’s brilliantly performed and the fact that Jenna is written as a very real artificial character, constantly walking the line between shallow and depth, that tickles my fancy. In Season 7, she proudly declares "My whole life is thunder!" and nothing could be more spot on in describing the depth but lack of content of Jenna Maroney. (Thunder has no presence, but does indicate the distance of an object to the lighting event). This aural signifier foreshadows Jenna’s final song, “Rural Juror,” and Jenna's character as sound and fury, signifying nothing yet everything all at once.
For those who don’t know the show, in the first season Jenna stars in “The Rural Juror” – an indie film with a comincally unpronounceable name (go ahead, say it out loud). Jenna’s excitement over being a film overshadows any concern over its quality – and the rest of the cast cannot even understand the title of the film to be able to comment on it. The fictional film is a running gag that comes up throughout the rest of 30 Rock, oftentimes when you least expect it. It reemerges one last time during the last episode, “Last Lunch.” This time, we finally get to hear the theme song from the film. The song is the emotional farewell of the both TGS and 30 Rock, bookending Liz and Jack’s arc-conclusion as Jack goes off to find himself, only to return less than a minute later with an idea for clear washing machines. It also happens to cross market Jenna's previous film career, certainly an aspect to Jenna's decision.
Playing off of the initial gag, the lyrics to “Rural Juror” are an exercise in mumbling melody. It sounds as though Jane is stumbling through the lyrics, though in reality she is doing a delicate job in enunciating every syllable without overdoing it.
The Irma Luhrman-Merman murder
Thusfar, I’ve just described everything for you – mainly because I don’t expect everyone to have seen every TV show. (In fact, that’s pretty impossible.) This moment in the show, however, serves such a structurally important moment (the writers knew it was the last episode, and it’s about a last episode) that it’s hard to ignore its final turn into music (and Jenna admitting her next career move will be going back to Broadway) and what it might have to say about the role of music in the show and in how people relate(d) to 30 Rock. A turn towards a musical performance isn’t uncommon for 30 Rock – the series is about performance because it’s literally a backstage television series – so many performances have been a part of storyline.
What’s curious is the emotional connection that the song has generated among fans. On a surface level, the song is a conclusion of a running gag with mumbles for lyrics. Jenna’s character arc is that she’s never arc-ed, she’s remained as wrapped in her self as ever (demonstrated in her marriage where her husband takes her first and last name). Her career choices have remained the same – she starts off Season 1 starring in the film and ends Season 7 by doing the musical version of the film. So it’s one more comedy jab to conclude the series’ metanarrative about the status of actors and entertainment. Yay!
The song itself borrows pretty heavily on emotional cues and easily explained that way. A solo piano introduction and a strong, supportive string section evokes images of the expressive and the epic by alluding to a more classical aesthetic (compared to Jenna’s other hit – “Muffin Top” – which begins with this aesthetic and then turns into a dance beat). The song even ramps up the emotion with a modulation as we come back from Jack & Liz’s scene – along with a repetitive chorus giving Jenna/Jane more opportunity to emote.
The song’s lyrics start of undecipherable, but as the chorus begins we have the first phrase that isn’t part of the same phonetic semblance as ‘rural juror’ – “I will never forget you, rural juror.” If my phonetics is up to par, which it’s not, I’d be able to say exactly what changes – but with “I” the lyrics suddenly embrace an open vowel sound. Previous opportunities for a more nasal sound are overlooked to keep the flow of the music as well as, probably, the joke that nothing is understandable. “turgid error” is a good example – the “-id” and “er-“ of these words could easily have, with a different accent, a more nasal and pronounced sound, but because of the rhythm of delivery, these vowels are hidden and deemphasized. Jane’s singing of “error” seems to emphasize “-ror” to an almost rounded “ahh” sound. So, lyrically, the song switches gears to a more pronounced vowel and the longest note value thusfar: “I----- will never forget you, rural juror.” The sentiment cannot help but be interpreted as Jenna/Jane/writers of 30 Rock expressing their sadness over the show’s end.
The ending really gets me. The song’s ‘joke’ is that the lyrics cannot be understood well, yet are perfectly sensible English lyrics – the chorus suddenly becomes clear and latches onto the many layers of narrative and diegesis occurring between the show-within-a-show and 30 Rock itself – and the song ends with “These were the best days of my ... flerm.” As if to undermine the whole premise of the joke, the last word – which we might expect to be “life” – chooses to embrace a proper rhyme rather than be an actual word. The song (perhaps a nod to how awful the writers of “Rural Juror” were) fails to end with any sort of meaningful message. It’s as if the joke itself was crushed under its own weight.
Normally, this might be disappointing. A great running gag gets mishandled and all of a sudden the artificiality of the gag becomes center-stage, leaving the joke impotent of the magic that running gags need to inspire laughter repetitively over time. But here, I think the last word just shines a beacon of light over the series. A television show with a lot of quirky moments, it also embraced a very eclectic lexicon of bleargs, jags, narfs, and others. Ending with flerm has been prepared by the other weird sounds the characters have uttered. But in all those past instances, they were emotional expressions said in disgust or exasperation. Here is a nonsense word as a song lyric - perhaps a conflation of expression taking over the linguistic in some kind of utopian moment of pre-linguistic authentic communication. (Whoa, I've been reading too much about the evolution of language today).
My first response to this ending was that Jenna, after getting through the song, messes up the last line and reveals the imperfection in her performance (the paradox of her character is that she’s insecure yet thinks she’s the best performer, yet is actually routinely cast as less-than in roles). By ending on a mistake, the show pokes fun at itself through Jenna Maroney – perhaps reminding themselves that now that they’re all big-shot Emmy winners, they are still fallible human beings.
But, my more fanciful philosophical side sees this as a perfect moment where 30 Rock inverts on itself. The ‘rural juror’ joke is a great running gag and is pretty shallow in terms of depth of meaning. "It’s hard to understand! Get it?!" Yet, the show was filled with running gags. I might even say that the show fits the classic sitcom format and structure pretty nicely and moreso that most contemporary sitcoms – heck, there are even fart jokes! On the other hand, the show participates in the aesthetics of ‘meta-‘ of being about a fictional show (which, in turn, is somewhat based on Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey’s own experience as head writer, re: Sun Tea). Watching the show with any sort of knowledge of television tropes, NBC, or Fey’s life would open up a secondary reading that instantly adds a confusing depth between layers of fiction and reality.
So, what if ‘flerm’ anchors the series in its own depth of shallowness? As onomatopoetic utterance, ‘flerm’ fits and continues the ‘rural juror’ joke and literally replaces ‘life.’ Yet, when I watch it, I hear/recognize the expectation for the line “These were the best days of my life.” and, although I know it’s not fitting for the rhyme scheme, I still have the experience of the implied line along with the pleasing musicality of a finished rhyme scheme. In essence, the song gets to have its joke and be sentimental at the same time without, at all, having to compromise its joke-ness. It doesn’t have to ‘break’ character in order to be emotional. Instead, I bear the burden of multiple meanings and interpretation.
Granted, this is probably not how most people – or anyone else, probably – has heard this song. But, it’s how I hear it and sometimes that’s good enough for me. But I also think it might help others understand why a song like this has a structural importance in concluding the series beyond a simple recurrence of a running gag. Otherwise, people would just laugh one more time and turn it off. Instead, the song was nominated for an Emmy and if you search tumblr or youtube, many people admit to crying upon multiple listenings to the song. Yes, it’s the final song. Yes, it participates in common ‘emotional song’ musical tropes. Yes, it’s funny as well. In this case, though, the funny-teary dichotomy is not a comic-tragic spectrum – instead, it’s comic-sentimental at the same time, a feat I haven’t seen very much. And possibly an important thing to notice about the nature of comedy – that it can be combined with the sentimental and still maintain its integrity as comedy. This becomes increasingly important as our entertainment and media become more layered and complex in terms of diegetic realities and genre expectations. If we start to become the conduits of a more complicated affective game, we risk a new form of manipulation or a form of pleasure that can open up new pathways towards fields of experience. Oftentimes, I'd say, this comes in the form of injecting a musical moment or performance into a non-musical narrative, granting a plurality of expressive modes that can handle both complimentary and opposing sentiments.
In conclusion, I think that Jenna's character is one of the most interesting I've found in television - probably because she's a cardboard cutout of the stereotypical actress without any sort of ideologically enforced 'redemptive moment.' Her actions fly by as much as her passions. And her love affair with Paul is both non sequitur, comedy genius, tokenism, as well as romantic, revolutionary, and seems exciting to examine from both Foucault (bodies and pleasures!) and Lacan (le petit object a as your own impersonator? = true love). All I know is that I'd really love to see "Rural Juror: The Musical."
Thanks for reading this – these are notes and thoughts I have that I want to write down for future inspiration as well as to get comments from other people. These are often written in one sitting, so the editing may be rough, but I’m always interested in hearing about ideas and comments about my experiences/interpretations. This is all part of my long term obsession/fascination with how music enters our seemingly non-musical discourse and, in turn, reflects back a meaning of music that perhaps musicians don’t always see and that culture, itself, doesn’t have the words to express.
There are many movies from my childhood that stick with me and, upon further reflection, probably explain why I have such a dark and disturbed demeanor and perspective on life. One of these is The Brave Little Toaster, a 1987 film I owed on VHS and watched pretty regularly as a child. The story of a set of appliances fighting for their master’s approval and for their technological relevance was something that I enjoyed watching over and over again. Not that I thought of it that way when I was a kid, but I definitely understood that they were fighting to be in a world that might not accept them – and that world was the city. (Hmm, maybe this is why I love city living so much, having grown up in the country.)
This all said, the film has one of the darkest musical moments in Disney history (the Disney Wiki lists this number as #2 against the “Hell” song from Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m talking about “Worthless” from the end of the film, as the brave toaster and friends face death in the junkyard (read:graveyard). The song is sung by various cars as they are taken to be crushed into small, orderly cubes – and ostensibly their death, as they lose any sort of anthropomorphic elements indicating their liveness in that form.
Like many journey movies, the real threat of mortality is usually employed to garner a positive and greater appreciation of life. Through the threat of death, life becomes more valuable (when arguing for the superiority of one, safely threaten it with its Other and you can strengthen belief in the one). Another Disney feature, Homeward Bound (1993), uses this concept. Shadow, the older and wiser dog, is injured towards the end of the film and seemingly gives up, claiming that age will finally take him. As the pets (after having thought they were left behind, just as the appliances think) reach home, Shadow is nowhere to be found – until moments later, when he limps over the hill and the family is reunited.
Sound is very important to this scene for dramatic purposes. As the young, Jamie thinks he hears Chance’s bark, the scene’s dramatic trajectory is tied to its aural content. Chance’s bark announces his presence, followed by the shouting of Jamie and Chance (Michael J Fox). Next, Sassy’s meow (unbelievably) carries across a field and she begins changing “Hope, Hope, Hope” – the name of her owner – and they reunite. At this point, the family and audience expect (and want) Shadow’s sound to proceed his presence – only to be left with an significantly long stretch of a repetitive low string gesture. When Shadow appears to the audience, a french horn melody announces the hero’s return – gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra into a full, climactic reunion music. Chance, in particular, learns the meaning of family and home – disciplined, so to speak, to feel the pleasure of the American Dream.
So, what does this have to do with The Brave Little Toaster? I bring up Homeward Bound because it ends quite triumphantly – heroic melodies, the family is together, and there is very little threat behind the problems of the story. The pets aren’t really left behind, they just think they are, and Shadow is momentarily hurt, but apparently got himself out. Moreso, the family is just sad – they were never placed into any harm along the way. The Brave Little Toaster, however, brings the appliances’ owner to the junkyard to be put into the same threatening situation as the appliances. Not only could the toaster die, but also a real human person in the process. To me, the threat of mortality is greater than many other stories told – it is infections, it spreads, and actually applies to all subjects rather than selectively (as in the case of Shadow). The artificial bounds of storytelling for the purpose of affective manipulation (Shadow’s heroism inspires Chance – and, assumably, the audience – into believing in a home that is apart from the ‘squishy stuff’ and more important, read:ideological, to life) is left behind for a very, dare I say it, real moment of mortality and existence. Combine this with the fact that the appliances themselves are in real danger of being replaced – their materiality is an old technology and throughout their journey their functionality and efficiency is called into question as compared to the modern world – and The Brave Little Toaster becomes a movie that is more about the dissolution of technology into nostalgia – the only element that saves the appliances in the end. I welcome any and all ties to Marxism that this story can garner – and, while you’re at it, also to J. Jack Halberstam’s low theory and the politics of early Pixar movies involving anthropomorphized objects and their potential for radical political agency.
"Worthless" - a brief musical analysis
“Worthless” takes us through a story of how easily and quickly these things slip into total destruction. I’ll take each verse as it goes to show how quickly and frighteningly accurate the threat of destruction unravels everything, including the notion that someone can somehow get through the experience unscathed.
The first two verses establish the condition that many of the cars are in; they are old, they don’t start, and they’ve resigned themselves to their fate.
I can't take this kind of pressure,
I must confess one more dusty road
Would be just a road too long
I just can't, I just can't,
I just can't seem to get started
Don't have the heart to live in the fast
Lane; all that has passed and gone
But then, this becomes problematized when the rest of the junkyard repeatedly sings “Worthless” as if it is their mantra. Perhaps these cars were told too many times they were worthless and they’ve been coerced into accepting this fate? The yelled interpolations indicate there is some resistance to the whole process, but they are laments, not calls to action.
(And there ain't nothing you can do about it!)
(Pardon me while I panic!)
Worthless! Worthless! Worthless!
Then the more personal verses occur – the first embodies the mythical South and Americana of Route 66. This car is indentified by place, by where it’s been, and, interestingly, many of these doubly refer to musical places. This verse establishes a very ‘American’ geography that these cars inhabit – and mainly a representation of the Midwest and South.
I come from KC Missouri,
And I got my kicks out on Route 66
Every truck stop from Butte to MO
Motown, New Orl’, Alabama
From Texarkana and east of Savannah
From Tampa to old Kokomo
The next car identifies itself by function – it ran the Indy 500. As a failed participate in the race, the car laments about its ability to be anything other than a winning racecar. A losing racecar, it seems, is not an option - instead of overcoming failure, the car seems stuck in it.
I once ran the Indy 500
I must confess I'm impressed how I did it
I wonder how close that I came
Now I get a sinking sensation,
I was the top of the line; out of sight;
(Out my mind), so much for fortune and fame
A note: some of these verses are broken up by story elements – so the song could be heard as being a lot longer, yet we only see/hear a few of the verses that the camera allows us. Also, because of this, the musical form is like a musical scene rather than a song – which could be an explanation for the dramatic key change before this next verse.
The next verse speeds up the narrative energy. Two cars sing and are crushed together: a limo and a hearse. The limo drove a Texan to a wedding, who ultimately left the marriage because he still felt lonely – thus leaving the limo’s purpose and meaning as an empty dream. Marriage apparently doesn’t create connection. The hearse’s lyrics are even more powerful – this car seems to embrace dying because “it’s quite hard enough just living with the stuff I [the hearse] have learned.” Having been so close to death, actually having dead bodies within it, the hearse is burdened with the knowledge of mortality and seemingly wants it.
Once took a Texan to a wedding
Once took a Texan to a wedding
He kept forgetting, his loneliness letting
His thoughts turn to home and returned
I took a man to a graveyard
I beg your pardon, it's quite hard enough
Just living with the stuff I have learned.
With the image of sunsets, surfers, and mention of Fellini, the next car goes further west into the West – that frontier that is either California or Imaginary, where dreams become reality. Americana is in full force, with hot dogs, bikinis, and surf culture, but it is a certain out-dated mode of American that begs for nostalgia but also recalls the anxieties surrounding this idyllic beach parties (wars, changing gender roles). The pure expanse of American is called upon with the mention of highways – this car had a hand in the expansion and conquering of the American West.
Once drove a surfer to sunset,
There were bikinis and buns, there were weenies
Fellini just couldn't forget
Pico, let's go up to Zuma
Pico, let's go up to Zuma
From Zuma to Yuma the rumor was
I had a hand in the lay of the land
Get up and go hit the highway!
The previous car, then, curiously and powerfully leads into the last car – one that was abandoned as its owners left their reservation to join the city. Mirroring the story of the toaster and its friends, this car was left behind and was told it was “worthless” by its owners. Considering many of these cars are tied to place, the lose of population of reservations concluding a (I think) pretty direct narrative describing the westward movement of Americans in creating the American Dream of the West both geographically and culturally, the song ends with American’s most deeply rooted yet underdiscussed violation of human rights.
I worked on a reservation,
Who would believe they would love me and leave
On a bus back to old Santa Fe
Once in an Indian nation,
I took the kids on the skids where the Hopi
Was happy 'til I heard 'em say...
So, in a quick conclusion – the song maps a lot of signifiers into a fast-paced and dramatic song, one that links a lot of scenes and characters together towards a finale. American’s westward expansion, the atrocities done to Native Americans, and the modern quest of technological progress are placed alongside each other. As the last vehicle says, it was left behind because it was worthless to the new way of life in Santa Fe. Perhaps, this indicates a critique of technological progress that also tells past progress it is worthless. As we drift towards a “Cloud” society of data on computers, servers, and the world becomes increasingly smaller through this technology and the recent revelation of monitoring techniques, many (such as the low-tech and DIY movements) are calling for the old technologies as a means of getting out of the dystopian society ahead of us.
What strikes me, most of all, is that this reading and watching of The Brave Little Toaster is not hidden as much as contemporary films. Perhaps because it wasn’t as relevant then, but the BLT seems to have much more to say now about the balance between nostalgia, home, technology, and uselessness that plague our present discourse. If one boy can risk his life for a toaster, what does this say about our current state of affairs? More importantly, though, this song forces the listener to stop and think about who ends up in the junkyard of history – who is told they are worthless, who resigns to the structures of value as ‘fate,’ and how can one intervene? Ultimately, the appliances are still function and their ‘master’ has a nostalgia connection to them – so they are saved the fate of the junkyard. The story would be much more different today. The radio, in particular, may meet his maker and the television, secure in his place during 1987, would also be on the chopping block and journeying from being left behind.
Comments? Concerns? These are general thoughts - blogging to get things off my chest and also get in the practice of being able to analyze and communicate. Any and all views could be completely wrong and I love when I am politely (or not so politely) told how I can be better.